The Petersen Automotive Museum has opened its “Legends of Los Angeles: Southern California Race Cars and Their Builders” in the Charles Nearburg Family Gallery. The display features 12 race cars and two vast screens for a 180-degree panoramic video offering spellbinding action of and from some of the most famous cars built in the Los Angeles area, as well as interviews with their constructors. That alone is worth the trip.
Joe Scalzo’s book, City of Speed: The Rise of American Racing clearly establishes the aircraft-industry skill sets, the fiery competitive nature of Los Angeles’ perennial youth culture — and weather — as the racer’s call to the West. At the turn of the century racers came from all over the world to race on LA’s board tracks, dirt tracks, dry lake beds, or the sunny streets of Venice or Santa Monica, where they found Harry Miller and a growing community of racers — and stayed.
That immigration now represents hundreds of innovative companies, thousands of talented entrepreneurs, and countless enthusiastic builders of dreams.
Our own chronicler of the western gold rush to speed was Robert E. Petersen and his paper-and-ink ignition of a national post-WW II explosion of racing enthusiasm. The Petersen Automotive Museum was founded as a place to celebrate the history, industry and artistry of the results. Herein, “Legends of Los Angeles: Southern California Race Cars and Their Builders.”
As you enter the museum, the race car exhibit is announced by three famous cars that represent the styles of their builders:
• The 1946 Ross Page Special is the Frank Kurtis’s hint of the dominant Indy roadsters still a decade in the future;
• Quin Epperly’s 1962 Mid-Continent Securities Special is the “roadster,” a high-water mark in that idea with its Offenhauser 4-cylinder engine laying on its side with the drive-line running past the driver who was seated nearly on the belly pan to improve the cars aerodynamics;
• The Eddie Kuzma-designed Offenhauser-powered sprint car was built and raced by Don Edmunds in 1957 before Parnelli Jones made history with it in 1960. After a full season of winning with (and wearing out) his Hank Henry-built Chevy V8 sprint car, he won his last race of the season and the first USAC National Championship in this Offy-powered treasure.
In the Charles Nearburg Family Gallery, the exhibit begins with an extremely thin 1924 Miller 122 with its supercharged, two-liter, dohc straight-eight engine; the grandfather of the all conquering Offenhauser four and its half-century of success.
The 2-liter class was an international racing category and in 1924 allowed supercharging. Miller’s 6-inch centrifugal compressor turned 40,000 rpm to increase the 122 output from 150 horsepower to 250. The blown 122 averaged 126.9 mph on its first outing the great Culver City board track (think 1924).
Tony Nancy, master trimmer for the rod and custom show circuit, was also a racer. He built 22jr from a 1929 Ford roadster with its supercharged flathead Ford V8 just under the cowl so aggregate weight with the driver would be near the center of the wheelbase. He campaigned his cars all over the world as an ambassador for the idea of drag racing.
Robert Wilke’s 1947 Leader Card Kurtis-Kraft midget that won the national championship at Soldier Field in Chicago that year. Frank Kurtis built about 350 midget race cars and dominated that early post-war racing class. Many Kurtis-built race winners were powered by the 110 Offy, though there was some low-cost competition from highly modified Ford V8/60 engines. Vic Edelbrock’s Bobby Meeks-built V8/60 Ford-powered Kurtis beat the Offys with a small measure of nitromethane in its fuel — thus another Los Angeles legend.
During the 1930s the dry lake beds north of Los Angeles were training grounds for young hot rod builders. There you could go as fast as you could make your Model T go, make a little change and go a little faster still. The science of aerodynamics could make a difference and after WW II the ultimate cheap aerodynamic solution was an aircraft drop tank for a scrap yard. The 1948 King & Hansen “belly-tank” is a prime example. There again, with Ford’s little V8/60 you could reach new record speeds for a few dollars.
The No. 21 HOW Special is a 1956 Championship Dirt-Racing Car (Champ Car) is powered by a 252-inch Offy. It was designed and constructed by Southern California native A. J. Watson, a preeminent constructor of oval track cars and most famous for his eight Indy roadsters what won the Indianapolis 500 six times between 1956 and 1964. The HOW Special’s name was derived from the last names of its illustrious team of owners: Mary Hulman, Judge George Ober and Roger Wolcott. It competed in 58 dirt track races from 1956 through 1961 bringing home one championship and ten top-10 finishes.
Children’s book author Fred Gibson published a much-loved book about an old yellow dog in 1942, he called it Old Yeller. Disney released a film based on the book in 1957, the year before Max and Ina Balchowski created their famously rudimentary California road-racing Special, based on the Morgensen Special Max had acquired — and painted it yellow. It was just too easy. Ol’ Yaller II was better and faster, if not prettier, and Ol’ Yaller Mk III was a completely new tube-framed racecar and looked almost Italian. There were requests for clones; here we have Ol’ Yaller IX of 1963, giving an idea of Max and Ina’s success producing them.
This 1964 NASCAR 427 Mercury Marauder was engineered and built by Bill Stroppe and driven by Darel Dieringer, who had recorded Stroppe’s first NASCAR win the previous year. Stroppe’s Long Beach shop was Ford’s west coast racing headquarters. He had created a stellar record of success with Ford powered race cars, including his own Kurtis 500 Sports Car powered by a Stroppe-built flathead Ford V-8.
1964 Cobra 289 FIA homologation is one of only five constructed. This car, CSX2323, is the car Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant drove in the brutal Targa Florio on the island of Sicily, finally finishing a wounded eighth overall and second in the GT class. Graham Shaw and Dick Thompson used the car, now privately owned, to win the 1965 SCCA nationals at Virginia International Raceway the following year.
1966 All American Racers Gurney Eagle Indy Car. Power was delivered by Ford’s all-new 255-inch 4-cam, 4-valve Indy engine, with its 425 reliable horsepower at 8,000 rpm. The first lap of the 1966 Indianapolis 500 eliminated 11 cars in a horrific crash — including Dan Gurney and his new Eagle. Its stable mates went on to 22 wins and 33 poles for the USAC National Championship.
The 1967 Shelby Super Snake AA/Fuel dragster was built by Don Long with a supercharged Ford SOHC 427 NASCAR engine built by Ed Pink and piloted by Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. It managed four quarter-mile runs in the 6-second category.
“Big Oly” is the mighty 1970 tube frame, Ford-powered Baja racer (fiberglass Bronco skin) built by Bill Stroppe for Parnelli Jones. Brave in deed was Bill Stroppe, who rode in the second seat while Parnelli flew cross-country and made history.
The 1970 Alex Morales “Tamale Wagon” was built by Don Edmonds. The Tamale Wagon series of sprint cars won 129 races en route to six California Racing Association (CRA) championships. This fourth generation car runs the Moser 4-cam 302-inch Chevrolet sprint car engine.